How Often Do You Think about the Color of Your Skin? A Discussion Between Two Friends
In this excerpt from my novel Dominion, the main character Clarence Abernathy, a black journalist, discusses issues related to race with his friend and coworker Jake Woods (the main character of the previous novel Deadline). There’s a lot of action in the book, but this is a lengthy dialogue, one that may help you think a little differently about racial issues than a nonfiction treatment might (hence, this is a longer than normal blog).
It’s been twenty-five years since I researched and wrote the book. But the issues it addresses are still pertinent. As an African American friend, a professional athlete, said to me last week in the wake of the George Floyd murder, “Crazy times…but I feel like we’ve been here before. Amazing how much things don’t change.” But perhaps this time they will, certainly some are saying their own perspectives and hearts and empathy are changing. (By the way, in my next blog I’ll be addressing the terrible place that good cops, black and white and every ethnicity, find themselves in when they are condemned and judged by the actions of bad cops.)
Here’s that passage from Dominion:
On Wednesday afternoon Clarence finished his Thursday column, packed up his briefcase, and left the Trib at one. He’d been there since five-thirty, and his bones ached for fresh air and exercise. He dropped by his house in North Portland, changed to his sweats, affixed his bike rack to the car, strapped on his bike, and jumped in the driver’s seat with spring in his step. He drove out toward Gresham. When he’d lived in the suburbs, he’d ridden the Springwater Corridor Trail three or four times a week. Now because of the driving time, that was down to just once a week, Wednesday afternoons. But it was a ritual he looked forward to, rain or shine. These days, it was one of the few oases in the desert of his life…
Thursday evening the violins, trombones, trumpets, french horns, drums, and cymbals permeated the living room at high volume. Clarence and Jake sat next to each other, soaking in the music. In front of them were the rich blues, the deep reds, the black backdrop, and the white pinpoints of a distant part of the galaxy where their minds traveled, though their bodies sat in Jake’s apartment. It was the introduction to Deep Space Nine. For the next hour they bantered through commercials and watched the show attentively right to the credits.
“DS Nine’s getting better,” Clarence said. “It’s nearly as good as Voyager now, maybe Next Generation.”
“It’s not that good,” Jake said.
“Well, Sisko’s the best captain.”
“Better than Kirk, sure. Better than Janeway? I don’t know. I really like her. But nobody’s better than Picard.”
“Picard? He’s a cold fish. Sisko’s my main man.”
“He kind of reminds me of you,” Jake said.
“Because he’s black and studly?” While Jake rolled his eyes, Clarence suddenly looked serious.
“Hey, Jake, you remember when Captain Kirk kissed Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek? Did you know that was the first interracial kiss ever on television?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yeah,” Clarence spoke wistfully. “It was less than thirty years ago, and we were still watching it on our black-and-white TV, Harley and Ellis and I. Mama saw that white man and black woman kissing and got right up and turned off the TV. She said, ‘I don’t want you boys gettin’ no ideas.’ She said, ‘Don’t you forget Emmit Till,’ then she pulled out that old picture.”
“Who’s Emmit Till? What picture?”
Clarence looked surprised Jake didn’t know. “A fourteen-year-old boy. He was visiting family in Mississippi. They say he made a friendly comment to some white woman in a store. They found him three days later in the Tallahatchie River, wired by his neck to a big old metal fan. He had a bullet in his skull, eye gouged out, head crushed. His mother insisted on an open casket so the whole world could see. Jet magazine printed a picture of his corpse. Mama cut it out. Even though we were just babies when it happened, a couple times a year she’d pull it out of a drawer and show it to us boys—to scare us into staying away from white girls.”
“Who killed him?”
“The woman’s husband and his brother, as I recall. There was an eyewitness who identified the two of them as dragging Emmit into their truck and driving off. The all-white jury deliberated one hour and found them not guilty.”
“No kidding? I didn’t remember that.” Jake felt tentative, wondering whether to step into it or not. “Can I ask you something, Clarence? You obviously think a lot about...racial issues. That’s fine, and you’ve helped me understand a lot of things. But sometimes I sense you’re... angry. I can see it in your eyes.”
“Harley says any black man who isn’t angry is either stupid or dead,” Clarence said. “Not that I always agree with Harley. I usually don’t.” Jake noticed Clarence running his finger underneath his right ear.
“I guess I usually assume the anger is racial,” Jake said, “but I’m not sure. Sometimes you’re hard to read. I really do want to understand you better. We’re friends. We’re brothers. Talk to me. I want to know what’s going on inside you.”
Clarence sighed and sat silent for thirty seconds. “Where do I begin? Which of a thousand stories do I tell? How about this one? Once down in Mississippi I was with my cousin Rod and my aunt Charlene. A teenage white boy walks by and glares at us with these dagger eyes and growls under his breath, ‘Niggers.’ Aunt Charlene turns around and looks at him and a light goes on. She says, ‘That’s Jarod Smith. I used to take care of him. I raised him. I wiped that boy’s nose and his bottom, and I dried his tears. All so he could grow up and call me and mine nigger?’ She was mad as a wet wasp,” Clarence laughed. “Can you blame her?”
“No,” Jake said. “I can’t.”
“Or how about last night? Geneva and I watched The Color Purple. Hadn’t seen it since it was in the theaters, years ago. Everybody loved The Color Purple. The book got a Pulitzer; the movie got Oscars. Well, can you look through that book or watch that movie and show me one black man who had any redeeming qualities, unless it was the fact that he eventually died? The worse the men, the more holy the women who had to suffer them. Used to be that the worst villains in movies were aliens, but now half the aliens are good. The only bad guys left are Nazis and black men, and maybe an occasional Hispanic or Arab.”
“But wasn’t The Color Purple written by a black woman?”
“So? You think it feels better for black men to be humiliated by black women than white men?”
“I’ve done a lot of thinking about the talk we had at the deli,” Jake said, “about people being conscious of their skin color. Looking back, I grew up almost never giving a thought to it.”
“We had to think about it,” Clarence said. “With segregation, busing, voting, separate drinking fountains and restrooms and schools and what have you, we didn’t have the luxury of not thinking about it. I first went to integrated school in fourth grade. When I sat down, the chairs around me emptied like I was a pipe bomb. I was the brunt of jokes, was spit on, called names. Even the kids who weren’t cruel were always whispering about me. Most of the teachers weren’t really hostile, but they tolerated the meanness and that just encouraged it. The color of our skin chased us everywhere. You could never outrun it. We had no choice but to take it personally. It shaped us. It had to. Maybe that’s what you see in my eyes.”
“Since you were a kid, how often have you really thought about the color of your skin?” Jake asked.
“Don’t say, ‘Of course.’ White folks think they want blacks to be honest with them, but usually it turns out they don’t. How often have I thought about the color of my skin? Try every waking hour of every day of my life.”
“Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. Did you ever look through those black magazines I gave you?”
“Yeah, I did. It was really amazing. Every picture was of blacks—every subject of a feature, every writer, every advertisement had people with black skin. I don’t know if I saw a single white, except a few in Urban Family.”
“Now imagine,” Clarence said, “if when you grew up every magazine was like that, every television commercial and every billboard showed only people of another skin color, not yours. How do you think it would have made you feel?”
“Marginalized, I suppose. Out of it. Like maybe something was wrong with being white.”
“Exactly,” Clarence said. “That’s just how it was when I grew up. I’d look through all those magazines and the Sears and Wards catalogues and wonder what was wrong with being black. Now if I was white, I wouldn’t think about it either. When you’re in the driver’s seat, you don’t think about conditions in the back-seat. When you’re born into a privileged class you just take it for granted. The people who think about it are the ones who weren’t born privileged. It’s a birthright thing. Kids who have plenty of food don’t think about the fact they have food. But when you’re hungry, it’s always on your mind.”
“I guess I don’t think of myself as being privileged,” Jake said. “I mean, I’ve worked hard for what I’ve got.”
“I’m not saying you didn’t. And I’m not blaming you for anything, Jake. It could just as easily have been me born white and you born with my good looks. But that’s not how it happened. Didn’t you tell me once your grandfather ran a hotel?”
“Yeah, in Colorado. His father built it. He worked with him from the time he was a boy. They did the building and maintenance and my great-grandmother did all the cooking and cleaning, then passed that on to my grandmother. Nothing came easy for them.”
“I’m sure it didn’t. But you’re telling me your great-grandparents established their business back in the 1800s and they passed skills and resources and economic experience and training from their generation down to yours. Right?”
“So you’re the beneficiary of generations of hard work and education and opportunity and freedom. But see, while your great-grandparents were doing all that, my great-grandparents were forced to till the Mississippi soil and pick cotton until they couldn’t straighten their backs. They worked hard all right. But none of it benefited their children or grandchildren. It all benefited the next generation of white children.”
Jake sat there, not sure how to respond.
“So you see,” Clarence continued, “your ancestors worked to pass on advantages to you, and my ancestors worked to pass on advantages to you. I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you. But you have to realize that’s the way it was.”
“But my ancestors weren’t slave owners,” Jake said.
“Are you sure?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure, at least going back to my great-grandparents.”
“But it’s not that easy. See, the whole country, south and north, benefited economically from the work of the slaves and the sharecroppers. Your ancestors worked hard. Mine worked even harder, but with one big difference. Yours worked hard as free people, choosing the kind of work they’d do. They experienced the rewards of their work. That’s capitalism at its best. But mine worked hard at the bloody end of a whip, and they didn’t receive the rewards of their work. Their white masters did, the white plantation owners did, and during sharecropping the white landowners did. With the dirt pay during Jim Crow days, the whole white community benefited at the expense of black folk, who just scraped by. Didn’t you tell me your daddy went to Harvard?”
“Yeah, he did.”
“I’m sure he worked hard to get there. But my daddy dropped out of school in third grade to work fourteen-hour days on land owned by white folks, to help feed his family. Your daddy was born with an opportunity my daddy wasn’t. Your daddy’s opportunity and your ancestors’ opportunity came, at least partially, at the expense of blacks.”
“I’ve never thought of myself as privileged—certainly not at somebody else’s expense.”
“Privilege is like being born tall in a world that revolves around basketball,” Clarence said. “If you’re a seven footer, basketball’s going to come easier than if you’re five foot six. Now a seven footer can say, ‘I had to work hard to become a great basketball player.’ Yeah he’s right, but he’d be a fool not to realize he was born with advantages that helped his dream come true. There’s no substitute for hard work. But your daddy’s hard work and my daddy’s hard work didn’t bring them equal advantages, not financially or educationally. Now character, that’s something else.”
“Your father didn’t come up short on character, that’s for sure, Clarence I’m sorry to say mine did.”
“To compensate for his disadvantages, my daddy had to do extraordinary things to make it possible for Harley and me to go to college. In a lot of white families every kid has the opportunity to go to college, but in black families just one got that opportunity, if any. In my family it was two, Harley and me. There wasn’t enough money for the rest. Your father had the benefit of working in a family-owned business. Not that long ago black folk couldn’t own any property or businesses. We’re in the race now, all right, but you have a several-hundred-year head start. Black folk were helping your ancestors get that head start while white folk were keeping my ancestors out of the race.”
“Maybe I’ve gotten used to privilege and it feels like I earned it all,” Jake said.
“Well, if some white folk are too slow to see their advantages, some black folk are too quick to see their disadvantages. I’m the first one to admit that, Jake. See, my daddy never let his disadvantages rob him of hope or keep him from working hard and building the best life he could. I hear some black folk whining all the time, when the truth is they’ve got all these advantages Daddy never dreamed of. The whining makes me sick. But when I hear some white people born with the silver spoon in their mouths talk about how everybody just needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, well that makes me sick too. Truth is, black people have had freedom such a short time, we haven’t gotten real experienced at using it. Then there was the whole welfare thing and all those freethinking white university professors in the sixties that pushed this me-first family-destroying lifestyle that cut us off at the knees. I don’t even want to talk about that, it makes me so angry. I’ve never been happy with liberals or conservatives on racial issues. Anyway, next time you think maybe I’m angry, there’s a good chance you’re right.”
Jake nodded. He seemed unsure what to ask next, but Clarence didn’t need more prompting.
“Tom Skinner used the example of a baseball game. The game starts, and one team—let’s call them the White Sox—takes the lead. Next thing you know they’re up 10-0. The other team, Black Sox, has been trying to get their attention that something’s wrong. Well, come the seventh inning the White Sox finally notice the Black Sox have been playing the whole game with one hand tied behind their back. So, they say, ‘Okay, we’ll untie your hand. Batter up.’ Well, by now the score is 20-0, and we’re in the bottom of the seventh inning. The White Sox have mastered the skills necessary to play the game. The Black Sox are now able to play with both hands, true enough, but they’re used to playing with one and they don’t have the experience yet and their one arm is really sore, some of their shoulders are dislocated, and they’ve still got the rope burns. Given all that, and the score being 20-0, who do you think is going to win the game?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “I hear you.”
“And by this time, some of the Black Sox are going to give up trying because who can overcome that lopsided score? They’ve gotten so used to being disadvantaged that even when they’re untied they don’t think there’s any hope of catching up. Some of the black team adjust and excel, yes, but some just feel despair and anger, and some just give up and sit on the bench or throw rocks at the privileged team or fight with each other in the dugout.”
“I see what you’re saying. But am I wrong in thinking the score’s not 20-0 anymore?”
“Harley’s always telling me how things are so bad, worse than they’ve ever been. He’ll give me a statistic about many more whites per capita graduating from college than blacks. Then I’ll say, yes, but the percentage of blacks graduating from college is six times higher than it was thirty years ago. He’ll point out all the blacks living in poverty. It’s true, but the black middle class is much bigger than it’s ever been. Blacks work at blue-collar jobs for the same hours, wages, and benefits as whites. Black doctors, attorneys, professors, journalists—you name it—all at institutions that used to not allow blacks in the door. Colleges that didn’t used to permit black students now actively recruit them. African Americans are in thousands of local and appointed offices around the country. They’re mayors of some of the nation’s largest cities. They’re governors, senators, congressmen. They chair major congressional committees. Colin Powell was appointed head of the most powerful military machine in the history of the planet. A lot of the most popular and highest-paid television performers and athletes are black.”
“What does Harley say to all that?”
“Harley will only talk about oppression of minorities. I tell him that in every country in history where people have been oppressed, they’ve flooded the borders attempting to leave. In America, almost no minorities are trying to leave, whereas a tidal wave of minorities are desperately trying to enter. Are they coming here to get oppressed? Of course not. They know America’s the land of opportunity for minorities. But to Harley, and to a lot of black folk, it will always be a land of injustice. Blacks will always be helpless victims, and whites will always be malicious oppressors. But the truth is, every time racial injustice happens, and it happens a lot, all that progress disappears like smoke on a windy day. Because wrong is still wrong, and that wrong doesn’t stand on its own, it calls up a long history that has made blacks and whites who we are.”
“So racial problems really aren’t getting better?” Jake asked, voice weighed down in defeat.
“For some people, they are,” Clarence said. “You heard what I said. For others, it’s pretty much the same as always. And for a lot of folks, it’s just getting worse.”
“I’m embarrassed to say I never used to understand all this talk about racism. But lately the lights have started to turn on. Race is a burden for you it’s never been for me.”
“Burden is a good word. More than anything else, I just get tired of it all. I’d like to put on white skin for a few weeks, not because I want to be white—I don’t—but just so I could take a break, have a vacation. Just get the hay bales off my back awhile, that’s all. So I wouldn’t have to face the issue again and again every time I walk by someone at the supermarket or see a police officer looking at me or I drive up next to someone at a stoplight on a nice day and hear their power-locks engage.. Some days I’m just so worn out by it all. I can leave my briefcase at home, but I can’t leave my skin at home. Being black is a full-time job. Every class I was ever in, every white church I ever went to, I was expected to be the black voice, as if all blacks think alike. Somebody’s doing a story and they need to talk to a black man, they call me. You know Jake, if you ever get dog-tired at the Trib, you can put your head down on your desk and snooze a few minutes. I’ve seen you do it. I can’t do that.”
“Because when you do it, you’re just a man taking a snooze, probably because you stayed up late working hard. If I did it, I’d be a black man—lazy, indolent, probably up late partying or taking drugs. Cheating my employer by stealing his time. Proving black men are as bad as everyone thinks.”
“Come on, Clarence, you’re overreacting. Nobody would think that.”
“Maybe not everybody. But some would. That’s just a fact, Jake, whether or not you believe it. Dr. King used to tell the story of a man walking past ten drunk men, nine of them white, the other black. The man shook his head and said, ‘Just look at that black drunk, now would you?’”
“I don’t know what to say, brother. I...really feel bad.”
“Look, Jake, I don’t want to make you feel bad, and above all I don’t want your pity. Truth is, I went through a phase in the seventies, a phase my brother Harley’s still in. I took delight in manipulating remorseful whites into flagellating themselves with guilt. I’d either make them admit their racism—in which case they were guilty—or deny their racism, in which case they were even more guilty.”
“Like it was impossible for a white to be innocent?”
“Exactly. I, on the other hand, was part of the oppressed race, and that brought an innocence with it. Racism could go only one way. Whites could never be innocent; blacks could never be guilty. The whole thing was just self-indulgence. I was capitalizing on my ancestors’ suffering. I came to realize they didn’t give up, they labored hard to pass the baton to my generation, and now that we finally have a level playing field, we finally have a great chance to make it, some of us were sitting around smoking dope and whining about injustice and engaging in self-pity and excuses while we let opportunities slip away. I decided no more of this for me. I wasn’t going to play the race game anymore. For several years I wouldn’t even talk about race.”
“Because discussions about race always took place either in shouts or whispers. I hated both. Especially the whispers. All the walking on eggshells. All the dishonesty where people’s main goal is to not sound racist rather than to communicate what’s really on their mind. I hated it, that’s all. And as a middle-class black professional, I hated not being accepted by whites or blacks.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s darned if you do, darned if you don’t. I hear the pleas to ‘give back’ to my community. By living in the suburbs until recently I supposedly lost touch with my people and my cultural roots. Right. Like all blacks are supposed to live in constant danger in drug-infested, crime-infested neighborhoods, and both whites and blacks resent it when they don’t. Any white person who lives in poverty and a crime area, when he earns enough money, what does he do?”
“Usually, he moves out,” Jake said.
“Obviously, and that’s perfectly fine with most people. But when I moved out, it was like a betrayal, like I wasn’t being black. Hey, I was just being human. I want my kids to grow up safe and have a good education. What’s wrong with that? Dani and I used to go around and around on this. She wanted in the world’s worst way for me to move in to her neighborhood. Ironic, isn’t it? I’m there now just because she was shot and killed. You know, I’ve never known anybody sweeter than my little sis. But it was still real hard for her to trust white people.”
“I feel like most blacks don’t trust whites. Am I right?” Jake asked.
“Well, let’s face it, the track record’s pretty bad. How would you feel about black people if you knew your great-grandmother had stood on an auction block, stripped to the waist, while white men bid for her and the highest bidder got to take her as a slave and rape her whenever he felt like it? That’s a lot to overcome, don’t you think? My grandma, my mama’s mama, she never trusted a white person. Some people thought she was bitter. But she’d seen her brother killed by the Klan. And she saw her father waste away in the cotton fields. And she saw her house taken away by the landowners when her daddy got too sick to work. Trusting white people doesn’t come easy after what she saw. And the stories get passed on. For every bad thing you ever heard about a black person, I’ve heard five more about whites. Daddy wouldn’t stand for too much of that talk, but it didn’t stop my uncles and aunts and cousins and neighbors from filling my ears.”
“I understand why they’re suspicious,” Jake said. “I guess I would be too. But if blacks gave white people a chance, I think they’d find a lot of us are different now.”
“But that difference has to be proven over the long haul before there can be trust. You remember when we were sitting together at Promise Keepers down at Civic Stadium, and the Indian guy, the Navajo, next to us joked about the irony of a group of white American men calling themselves ‘Promise Keepers’? I laughed like crazy. As I recall, you didn’t think it was that funny. But I knew exactly what he was saying. All the promises to the Indians, all the promises to the blacks, those promises were never kept. Now you know how I love Promise Keepers, glad they’ve got a racial mix in the speakers, and I know they’re serious about racial reconciliation. But still, a lot of blacks are holding back, giving it time, watching whether all the talk is for real, whether it’s going to pan out, translate into a long-term track record.”
“I can appreciate the reservations,” Jake said. “I just hope more and more of us white guys learn to stop talking and instead ask questions and listen. And I hope more black brothers keep putting their feet in the water to give it a chance.”
“So do I. But a lot are going to stand out on the riverbank until they’re sure the gators aren’t biting. See, some of us have trusted white Christians before and ended up getting burned; we’ve told ourselves we’ll never do it again.”
“Okay,” Clarence looked as if he were mentally sorting through dozens of dominoes and deciding which one to draw. “When I was at OSU I got linked up with a campus Christian group, all whites but me. I had some great times with them. But then one day I was walking across campus with a group of black friends. I see these four Christian white guys coming and I know they see me and I’m going to introduce them to my friends, maybe build a bridge to invite my black friends to the group. But all of a sudden these guys are headed across the lawn so they don’t have to walk by me. I start to go after them, but then I realize what it’s all about. I can be their friend on their turf, in their white world, but they won’t cross over to my black world. I talked to them about it later. They apologized, but it was never the same after that. The friendship faded. I stopped going to the meetings. Too bad, because I needed them.”
Jake looked at Clarence like a student listening to a professor, in over his head, but struggling to understand.
“Have you ever figured out,” Clarence asked, “why I dress up on a weekend or evening when we go to Dick’s Sporting Goods?”
“Beats me. Just thought you like dressing up. It’s always struck me as weird, I admit. Who dresses up to go to a store?”
“I love to go casual. Jeans and a sweatshirt, that’s what I really like,” Clarence said. “But I also want to shop in peace. I get tired of the salesclerks saying, ‘Can I help you?’ every five minutes.”
“I don’t like being watched.”
“Clarence, what are you saying?”
“That I’m a black man,” Clarence’s voice thundered, “and black men are expected to be shoplifters! There. Can you understand that?”
“Sorry, man. Didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It wasn’t you. Sorry.” Clarence raised his hands and waited to regain his composure. “If you’re a white man wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, you’re just another customer. If you’re a black man wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, you’re just another suspect. Dressing up makes me look successful. So it helps compensate for my skin color. Sometimes it’s enough to keep store security from breathing down my neck all the time. Sometimes it’s not.”
“I had no idea,” Jake said. “Are you sure—”
“That I’m not overreacting? Hey, I’ve got friends who are doctors and attorneys, and they do the same thing. If they dress comfortable, they’re a suspect. It gets really old.”
Clarence and Jake talked for another hour.
“Got to get home, bro,” Clarence said. He hesitated, then added, “Hey, thanks for asking me about this stuff. And thanks for listening to me. I feel better talking about it.”
Jake put his arm around him. “Thanks for opening up to me, Clarence. Really. It gives me a lot to think about. I feel like the lights are starting to turn on. If it’s okay, I’d like to talk some more. And if you have some book recommendations on race, I’d like to do some reading. And maybe we could watch a few movies together.”
Clarence slapped Jake on the back and grinned. “Yeah, I got ten or twenty I could recommend.”
“How about we start with one book and one movie, then go on from there? Your pick.”
Clarence nodded and pulled Jake into a side hug. The two friends walked to the door together.